Books by willis j. Abbot

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The new government, formed under the Constitution, was prompt to recognize the demands of the shipping interests upon the country. In the very first measure adopted by Congress steps were taken to encourage American shipping by differential duties levied on goods imported in American and foreign vessels. Moreover, in the tonnage duties imposed by Congress an advantage of almost 50 per cent. was given ships built in the United States and owned abroad. Under this stimulus the shipping interests throve, despite hostile legislation in England, and the disordered state of the high seas, where French and British privateers were only a little less predatory than Algierian corsairs or avowed pirates. It was at this early day that Yankee skippers began making those long voyages that are hardly paralleled to-day when steamships hold to a single route like a trolley car between two towns. The East Indies was a favorite trading point. Carrying a cargo suited to the needs of perhaps a dozen different peoples, the vessel would put out from Boston or Newport, put in at Madeira perhaps, or at some West Indian port, dispose of part of its cargo, and proceed, stopping again and again on its way, and exchanging its goods for money or for articles thought to be more salable in the East Indies. Arrived there, all would be sold, and a cargo of tea, coffee, silks, spices, nankeen cloth, sugar, and other products of the country taken on. If these goods did not prove salable at home the ship would make yet another voyage and dispose of them at Hamburg or some other Continental port. In 1785 a Baltimore ship showed the Stars and Stripes in the Canton River, China. In 1788 the ship "Atlantic," of Salem, visited Bombay and Calcutta. The effect of being barred from British ports was not, as the British had expected, to put an abrupt end to American maritime enterprise. It only sent our hardy seamen on longer voyages, only brought our merchants into touch with the commerce of the most distant lands. Industry, like men, sometimes thrives upon obstacles.


For twenty-five years succeeding the adoption of the Constitution the maritime interest--both shipbuilding and shipowning--thrived more, perhaps, than any other gainful industry pursued by the Americans. Yet it was a time when every imaginable device was employed to keep our people out of the ocean-carrying trade. The British regulations, which denied us access to their ports, were imitated by the French. The Napoleonic wars came on, and the belligerents bombarded each other with orders in council and decrees that fell short of their mark, but did havoc among neutral merchantmen. To the ordinary perils of the deep the danger of capture--lawful or unlawful--by cruiser or privateer, was always to be added. The British were still enforcing their so-called "right of search," and many an American ship was left short-handed far out at sea, after a British naval lieutenant had picked the best of her crew on the pretense that they were British subjects. The superficial differences between an American and an Englishman not being as great as those between an albino and a Congo black, it is not surprising that the boarding officer should occasionally make mistakes--particularly when his ship was in need of smart, active sailors. Indeed, in those years the civilized--by which at that period was meant the warlike--nations were all seeking sailors. Dutch, Spanish, French, and English were eager for men to man their fighting ships; hired them when they could, and stole them when they must. It was the time of the press gang, and the day when sailors carried as a regular part of their kit an outfit of women's clothing in which to escape if the word were passed that "the press is hot to-night." The United States had never to resort to impressment to fill its navy ships' companies, a fact perhaps due chiefly to the small size of its navy in comparison with the seafaring population it had to draw from.

As for the American merchant marine, it was full of British seamen. Beyond doubt inducements were offered them at every American port to desert and ship under the Stars and Stripes. In the winter of 1801 every British ship visiting New York lost the greater part of its crew. At Norfolk the entire crew of a British merchantman deserted to an American sloop-of-war. A lively trade was done in forged papers of American citizenship, and the British naval officer who gave a boat-load of bluejackets shore leave at New York was liable to find them all Americans when their leave was up. Other nations looked covetously upon our great body of able-bodied seamen, born within sound of the swash of the surf, nurtured in the fisheries, able to build, to rig, or to navigate a ship. They were fighting sailors, too, though serving only in the merchant marine. In those days the men that went down to the sea in ships had to be prepared to fight other antagonists than Neptune and ├ćolus. All the ships went armed. It is curious to read in old annals of the number of cannon carried by small merchantmen. We find the "Prudent Sarah" mounting 10 guns; the "Olive Branch," belied her peaceful name with 3, while the pink "Friendship" carried 8. These years, too, were the privateers' harvest time. During the Revolution the ships owned by one Newburyport merchant took 23,360 tons of shipping and 225 men, the prizes with their cargoes selling for $3,950,000. But of the size and the profits of the privateering business more will be said in the chapter devoted to that subject. It is enough to note here that it made the American merchantman essentially a fighting man.

The growth of American shipping during the years 1794-1810 is almost incredible in face of the obstacles put in its path by hostile enactments and the perils of the war. In 1794 United States ships, aggregating 438,863 tons, breasted the waves, carrying fish and staves to the West Indies, bringing back spices, rum, cocoa, and coffee. Sometimes they went from the West Indies to the Canaries, and thence to the west coast of Africa, where very valuable and very pitiful cargoes of human beings, whose black skins were thought to justify their treatment as dumb beasts of burden, were shipped. Again the East Indies opened markets for buying and selling both. But England and almost the whole of Western Europe were closed.

It is not possible to understand the situation in which the American sailor and shipowner of that day was placed, without some knowledge of the navigation laws and belligerent orders by which the trade was vexed. In 1793 the Napoleonic wars began, to continue with slight interruptions until 1815. France and England were the chief contestants, and between them American shipping was sorely harried. The French at first seemed to extend to the enterprising Americans a boon of incalculable value to the maritime interest, for the National Convention promulgated a decree giving to neutral ships--practically to American ships, for they were the bulk of the neutral shipping--the rights of French ships. Overjoyed by this sudden opening of a rich market long closed, the Yankee barks and brigs slipped out of the New England harbors in schools, while the shipyards rung with the blows of the hammers, and the forest resounded with the shouts of the woodsmen getting out ship-timbers. The ocean pathway to the French West Indies was flecked with sails, and the harbors of St. Kitts, Guadaloupe, and Martinique were crowded. But this bustling trade was short-lived. The argosies that set forth on their peaceful errand were shattered by enemies more dreaded than wind or sea. Many a ship reached the port eagerly sought only to rot there; many a merchant was beggared, nor knew what had befallen his hopeful venture until some belated consular report told of its condemnation in some French or English admiralty court.

[Illustration: EARLY TYPE OF SMACK]

For England met France's hospitality with a new stroke at American interests. The trade was not neutral, she said. France had been forced to her concession by war. Her people were starving because the vigilance of British cruisers had driven French cruisers from the seas, and no food could be imported. To permit Americans to purvey food for the French colonies would clearly be to undo the good work of the British navy. Obviously food was contraband of war. So all English men-of-war were ordered to seize French goods on whatever ship found; to confiscate cargoes of wheat, corn, or fish bound for French ports as contraband, and particularly to board all American merchantmen and scrutinize the crews for English-born sailors. The latter injunction was obeyed with peculiar zeal, so that the State Department had evidence that at one time, in 1806, there were as many as 6000 American seamen serving unwillingly in the British navy.

France, meanwhile, sought retaliation upon England at the expense of the Americans. The United States, said the French government, is a sovereign nation. If it does not protect its vessels against unwarrantable British aggressions it is because the Americans are secretly in league with the British. France recognizes no difference between its foes. So it is ordered that any American vessel which submitted to visitation and search from an English vessel, or paid dues in a British port, ceased to be neutral, and became subject to capture by the French. The effect of these orders and decrees was simply that any American ship which fell in with an English or French man-of-war or privateer, or was forced by stress of weather to seek shelter in an English or French port, was lost to her owners. The times were rude, evidence was easy to manufacture, captains were rapacious, admiralty judges were complaisant, and American commerce was rich prey. The French West Indies fell an easy spoil to the British, and at Martinique and Basseterre American merchantmen were caught in the harbor. Their crews were impressed, their cargoes, not yet discharged, seized, the vessels themselves wantonly destroyed or libelled as prizes. Nor were passengers exempt from the rigors of search and plunder. The records of the State Department and the rude newspapers of the time are full of the complaints of shipowners, passengers, and shipping merchants. The robbery was prodigious in its amount, the indignity put upon the nation unspeakable. And yet the least complaint came from those who suffered most. The New England seaport towns were filled with idle seamen, their harbors with pinks, schooners, and brigs, lying lazily at anchor. The sailors, with the philosophy of men long accustomed to submit themselves to nature's moods and the vagaries of breezes, cursed British and French impartially, and joined in the general depression and idleness of the towns and counties dependent on their activity.

It was about this period (1794) that the American navy was begun; though, curiously enough, its foundation was not the outcome of either British or French depredations, but of the piracies of the Algerians. That fierce and predatory people had for long years held the Mediterranean as a sort of a private lake into which no nation might send its ships without paying tribute. With singular cowardice, all the European peoples had acquiesced in this conception save England alone. The English were feared by the Algerians, and an English pass--which tradition says the illiterate Corsairs identified by measuring its enscrolled border, instead of by reading--protected any vessel carrying it. American ships, however, were peculiarly the prey of the Algerians, and many an American sailor was sold by them into slavery until Decatur and Rodgers in 1805 thrashed the piratical states of North Africa into recognition of American power. In 1794, however, the Americans were not eager for war, and diplomats strove to arrange a treaty which would protect American shipping, while Congress prudently ordered the beginning of six frigates, work to be stopped if peace should be made with the Dey. The treaty--not one very honorable to us--was indeed made some months later, and the frigates long remained unfinished.

It has been the fashion of late years to sneer at our second war with England as unnecessary and inconclusive. But no one who studies the records of the life, industry, and material interests of our people during the years between the adoption of the Constitution and the outbreak of that war can fail to wonder that it did not come sooner, and that it was not a war with France as well as England. For our people were then essentially a maritime people. Their greatest single manufacturing industry was ship-building. The fisheries--whale, herring, and cod--employed thousands of their men and supported more than one considerable town. The markets for their products lay beyond seas, and for their commerce an undisputed right to the peaceful passage of the ocean was necessary. Yet England and France, prosecuting their own quarrel, fairly ground American shipping as between two millstones. Our sailors were pressed, our ships seized, their cargoes stolen, under hollow forms of law. The high seas were treated as though they were the hunting preserves of these nations and American ships were quail and rabbits. The London "Naval Chronicle" at that time, and for long after, bore at the head of its columns the boastful lines:

"The sea and waves are Britain's broad domain, And not a sail but by permission spreads."

And France, while vigorously denying the maxim in so far as it related to British domination, was not able to see that the ocean could be no one nation's domain, but must belong equally to all. It was the time when the French were eloquently discoursing of the rights of man; but they did not appear to regard the peaceful navigation of the ocean as one of those rights; they were preaching of the virtues of the American republic, but their rulers issued orders and decrees that nearly brought the two governments to the point of actual war. But the very fact that France and England were almost equally arrogant and aggressive delayed the formal declaration of hostilities. Within the United States two political parties--the Federalists and the Republicans--were struggling for mastery. The one defended, though half-heartedly, the British, and demanded drastic action against the French spoliators. The other denounced British insolence and extolled our ancient allies and brothers in republicanism, the French. While the politicians quarreled the British stole our sailors and the French stole our ships. In 1798 our, then infant, navy gave bold resistance to the French ships, and for a time a quasi-war was waged on the ocean, in which the frigates "Constitution" and "Constellation" laid the foundation for that fame which they were to finally achieve in the war with Great Britain in 1812. No actual war with France grew out of her aggressions. The Republicans came into power in the United States, and by diplomacy averted an actual conflict. But the American shipping interests suffered sadly meanwhile. The money finally paid by France as indemnity for her unwarranted spoliations lay long undivided in the United States Treasury, and the easy-going labor of urging and adjudicating French spoliation claims furnished employment to some generations of politicians after the despoiled seamen and shipowners had gone down into their graves.

In 1800 the whole number of American ships in foreign and coasting trades and the fisheries had reached a tonnage of 972,492. The growth was constant, despite the handicap resulting from the European wars. Indeed, it is probable that those wars stimulated American shipping more than the restrictive decrees growing out of them retarded it, for they at least kept England and France (with her allies) out of the active encouragement of maritime enterprise. But the vessels of that day were mere pigmies, and the extent of the trade carried on in them would at this time seem trifling. The gross exports and imports of the United States in 1800 were about $75,000,000 each. The vessels that carried them were of about 250 tons each, the largest attaining 400 tons. An irregular traffic was carried on along the coast, and it was 1801 before the first sloop was built to ply regularly on the Hudson between New York and Albany. She was of 100 tons, and carried passengers only. Sometimes the trip occupied a week, and the owner of the sloop established an innovation by supplying beds, provisions, and wines for his passengers. Between Boston and New York communication was still irregular, passengers waiting for cargoes. But small as this maritime interest now seems, more money was invested in it, and it occupied more men, than any other American industry, save only agriculture.

To this period belong such shipowners as William Gray, of Boston, who in 1809, though he had sixty great square-rigged ships in commission, nevertheless heartily approved of the embargo with which President Jefferson vainly strove to combat the outrages of France and England. Though the commerce of those days was world-wide, its methods--particularly on the bookkeeping side--were primitive. "A good captain," said Merchant Gray, "will sail with a load of fish to the West Indies, hang up a stocking in the cabin on arriving, put therein hard dollars as he sells fish, and pay out when he buys rum, molasses, and sugar, and hand in the stocking on his return in full of all accounts." The West Indies, though a neighboring market, were far from monopolizing the attention of the New England shipping merchants. Ginseng and cash were sent to China for silks and tea, the voyage each way, around the tempestuous Horn, occupying six months. In 1785 the publication of the journals of the renowned explorer, Captain Cook, directed the ever-alert minds of the New Englanders to the great herds of seal and sea-otters on the northwestern coast of the United States, and vessels were soon faring thither in pursuit of fur-bearing animals, then plentiful, but now bidding fair to become as rare as the sperm-whale. A typical expedition of this sort was that of the ship "Columbia," Captain Kendrick, and the sloop "Washington," Captain Gray, which sailed September 30, 1787, bound to the northwest coast and China. The merchant who saw his ships drop down the bay bound on such a voyage said farewell to them for a long time--perhaps forever. Years must pass before he could know whether the money he had invested, the cargo he had adventured, the stout ships he had dispatched, were to add to his fortune or to be at last a total loss. Perhaps for months he might be going about the wharves and coffee-houses, esteeming himself a man of substance and so held by all his neighbors, while in fact his all lay whitening in the surf on some far-distant Pacific atoll. So it was almost three years before news came back to Boston of these two ships; but then it was glorious, for then the "Federalist," of New York, came into port, bringing tidings that at Canton she had met the "Columbia," and had been told of the discovery by that vessel of the great river in Oregon to which her name had been given. Thus Oregon and Washington were given to the infant Union, the latter perhaps taking its name from the little sloop of 90 tons which accompanied the "Columbia" on her voyage. Six months later the two vessels reached Boston, and were greeted with salutes of cannon from the forts. They were the first American vessels to circumnavigate the globe. It is pleasant to note that a voyage which was so full of advantage to the nation was profitable to the owners. Thereafter an active trade was done with miscellaneous goods to the northwest Indians, skins and furs thence to the Chinese, and teas home. A typical outbound cargo in this trade was that of the "Atakualpa" in 1800. The vessel was of 218 tons, mounted eight guns, and was freighted with broadcloth, flannel, blankets, powder, muskets, watches, tools, beads, and looking-glasses. How great were the proportions that this trade speedily assumed may be judged from the fact that between June, 1800, and January, 1803, there were imported into China, in American vessels, 34,357 sea-otter skins worth on an average $18 to $20 each. Over a million sealskins were imported. In this trade were employed 80 ships and 9 brigs and schooners, more than half of them from Boston.


Indeed, by the last decade of the eighteenth century Boston had become the chief shipping port of the United States. In 1790 the arrivals from abroad at that port were 60 ships, 7 snows, 159 brigs, 170 schooners, 59 sloops, besides coasters estimated to number 1,220 sail. In the Independent Chronicle, of October 27, 1791, appears the item: "Upwards of seventy sail of vessels sailed from this port on Monday last, for all parts of the world." A descriptive sketch, written in 1794 and printed in the Massachusetts Historical Society collections, says of the appearance of the water front at that time:

"There are eighty wharves and quays, chiefly on the east side of the town. Of these the most distinguished is Boston pier, or the Long Wharf, which extends from the bottom of State Street 1,743 feet into the harbor. Here the principal navigation of the town is carried on; vessels of all burdens load and unload; and the London ships generally discharge their cargoes.... The harbor of Boston is at this date crowded with vessels. It is reckoned that not less than 450 sail of ships, brigs, schooners, sloops, and small craft are now in this port."

New York and Baltimore, in a large way; Salem, Hull, Portsmouth, New London, New Bedford, New Haven, and a host of smaller seaports, in a lesser degree, joined in this prosperous industry. It was the great interest of the United States, and so continued, though with interruptions, for more than half a century, influencing the thought, the legislation, and the literature of our people. When Daniel Webster, himself a son of a seafaring State, sought to awaken his countrymen to the peril into which the nation was drifting through sectional dissensions and avowed antagonism to the national authority, he chose as the opening metaphor of his reply to Hayne the description of a ship, drifting rudderless and helpless on the trackless ocean, exposed to perils both known and unknown. The orator knew his audience. To all New England the picture had the vivacity of life. The metaphors of the sea were on every tongue. The story is a familiar one of the Boston clergyman who, in one of his discourses, described a poor, sinful soul drifting toward shipwreck so vividly that a sailor in the audience, carried away by the preacher's imaginative skill, cried out: "Let go your best bower anchor, or you're lost." In another church, which had its pulpit set at the side instead of at the end, as customary, a sailor remarked critically: "I don't like this craft; it has its rudder amidships."

At this time, and, indeed, for perhaps fifty years thereafter, the sea was a favorite career, not only for American boys with their way to make in the world, but for the sons of wealthy men as well. That classic of New England seamanship, "Two Years Before the Mast," was not written until the middle of the nineteenth century, and its author went to sea, not in search of wealth, but of health. But before the time of Richard Henry Dana, many a young man of good family and education--a Harvard graduate like him, perhaps--bade farewell to a home of comfort and refinement and made his berth in a smoky, fetid forecastle to learn the sailor's calling. The sons of the great shipping merchants almost invariably made a few voyages--oftenest as supercargoes, perhaps, but not infrequently as common seamen. In time special quarters, midway between the cabin and the forecastle, were provided for these apprentices, who were known as the "ship's cousins." They did the work of the seamen before the mast, but were regarded as brevet officers. There was at that time less to engage the activities and arouse the ambitions of youth than now, and the sea offered the most promising career. Moreover, the trading methods involved, and the relations of the captain or other officers to the owners, were such as to spur ambition and promise profit. The merchant was then greatly dependent on his captain, who must judge markets, buy and sell, and shape his course without direction from home. So the custom arose of giving the captain--and sometimes other officers--an opportunity to carry goods of their own in the ship, or to share the owner's adventure. In the whaling and fishery business we shall see that an almost pure communism prevailed. These conditions attracted to the maritime calling men of an enterprising and ambitious nature--men to whom the conditions to-day of mere wage servitude, fixed routes, and constant dependence upon the cabled or telegraphed orders of the owner would be intolerable. Profits were heavy, and the men who earned them were afforded opportunities to share them. Ships were multiplying fast, and no really lively and alert seaman need stay long in the forecastle. Often they became full-fledged captains and part owners at the age of twenty-one, or even earlier, for boys went to sea at ages when the youngsters of equally prosperous families in these days would scarcely have passed from the care of a nurse to that of a tutor. Thomas T. Forbes, for example, shipped before the mast at the age of thirteen; was commander of the "Levant" at twenty; and was lost in the Canton River before he was thirty. He was of a family great in the history of New England shipping for a hundred years. Nathaniel Silsbee, afterwards United States Senator from Massachusetts, was master of a ship in the East India trade before he was twenty-one; while John P. Cushing at the age of sixteen was the sole--and highly successful--representative in China of a large Boston house. William Sturges, afterwards the head of a great world-wide trading house, shipped at seventeen, was a captain and manager in the China trade at nineteen, and at twenty-nine left the quarter-deck with a competence to establish his firm, which at one time controlled half the trade between the United States and China. A score of such successes might be recounted.

But the fee which these Yankee boys paid for introduction into their calling was a heavy one. Dana's description of life in the forecastle, written in 1840, holds good for the conditions prevailing for forty years before and forty after he penned it. The greeting which his captain gave to the crew of the brig "Pilgrim" was repeated, with little variation, on a thousand quarter-decks:

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